The American Dream?
December 6, 2017
by Logan Starnes
The struggles of the family central to The Humans, the Blakes, might seem familiar to many these days, especially for members of middle-class families in America. Erik and Deirdre face economic hardship regardless of their work ethic and their daughters Aimee and Brigid struggle despite their education and initiative. For the Blakes, the American Dream is not turning out as expected.
The idea of the American Dream arose before the Great Depression. At that time, it centered on immigrants moving to a new country for limitless opportunities, and the resulting cultural melting pot. The phrase “American Dream” was first used in a 1931 study on the effects of class on how Americans live and think about their lives.
Idolizing the American Dream stems from the persistence of character that working and middle-class families of the Depression era possessed. This idea was revitalized both during and after World War II as the nation rallied to support the troops fighting overseas. As the war ended and the soldiers came home, the American Dream shifted slightly. Now the focus was on obtaining the “perfect American household,” complete with a nice house in the suburbs, a steady job, marriage, and children. In this post-war resilience and rebuilding, U.S. citizens started thinking of the future and the possibilities it held. This was beneficial for middle-class families, they worked hard and it paid off – until the Great Recession of 2007.
When the Recession hit, the idea of the American Dream became less viable as Americans scrambled to stay afloat during economic hardships. Culturally and socially this caused the system – that they had put so much faith in – to fail middle-class Americans. According to the American Dream mindset, hard work and perseverance lead to limitless success, while poverty is synonymous for laziness and carelessness. Prosperity is within everyone’s grasp, and many “opportunities” are waiting if you never give up. Yet, since 2007, about one-third of the American middle class has fallen into poverty, or are one paycheck away from poverty. This has resulted in the bitter social divides.
At its finest, the American Dream can be inspirational but it’s still problematic and generally rooted in a falsehood. In reality the advent of American social mobility is among the lowest in the developed world. We sell ourselves as the Land of Opportunity; however, a child born impoverished in the U.S. is more likely to remain in poverty than any other comparable nation in the world. In contrast, it’s estimated that 40% of the billionaires in America inherited a sizable portion of their wealth. Despite these facts, the insistence that the U.S. is a meritocracy is so deeply ingrained within us that we have internalized the idea that we are all exactly where we deserve to be. In this American Dream story, success is not due to privilege or luck but our own determination and hard work. For the Blakes this hits particularly hard. Erik and Deirdre have worked hard all their lives in order to provide a better future for their daughters but this has fallen short of what was promised. The fact is that good jobs are progressively scarce, rent is sky high, livable wages are decreasing to poverty levels – all of which are rooted in difficult circumstances and systemic obstacles.
Yet the subtle insistence that we all should industriously reach for greatness can be mentally corrosive, and the Blakes feel completely responsible for their failings. The constant unrealistic mantra of “you can be anything you want to be” has manufactured a sense of inadequacy and anxiety in American life.
Erik and Deirdre have come to the realization that they are stuck even though they’ve done everything right, and their daughters are dealing with the disillusionment of the system as a whole. This causes arguments between them but ultimately they continue to adapt and persevere, regardless of everything else they are capable of surviving – which is perhaps the newer, more viable American Dream.
-Logan is an intern in Artists Rep’s Dramaturgy department.